Sunday, July 16, 2006

Modify your backbone (July 16, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are some moments in the life of a nation when people eschew individualism and look for leadership. I don’t know whether history will record the carnage of July 11 as a defining point for our country—just as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 was for our grandfathers, the fall of France in 1940 was for the British, and September 11, 2001, was for the majority of Americans. It is not the scale of a disaster that prompts a country to break with the past. A decisive shift in a nation’s collective way of thinking is invariably provoked by a corresponding feeling of vulnerability and helplessness.

History records that it is at these critical moments a leader often emerges who is able to transform dejection and despondency into determination and hope. Neville Chamberlain, the rather stiff and gentlemanly soul who epitomised the policy of appeasement, was not lacking in popular support between 1937 and 1939. When he returned from Munich in 1938 with a piece of paper that promised “peace with honour” he was met by jubilant crowds grateful that war with Hitler had been averted. Winston Churchill, who opposed Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, was then regarded as a crazy killjoy—a British Bal Thackeray. Yet, by the spring of 1940, Chamberlain was unceremoniously dumped and Churchill installed.

Something similar happened in India after 1919. The nationalist leadership was slipped out of the hands of stalwarts like Lokmanya Tilak and Surendranath Bannerjee and India reposed its faith in a quirky Gujarati who cloaked politics in ethics. Many of his contemporaries saw the Mahatma as a dotty interloper. He was unique but there is no doubt that passive resistance and non-violence crippled the British Raj more effectively than all the guns and bombs put together.

Leadership involves the ability to capture the essence of popular feeling and nudge it in a clear direction. Leadership becomes inspirational, not because an individual is blessed with godly attributes, but because—to use an ill-timed slogan of a failed American presidential aspirant—“in your heart you know he is right.”

Last week, India confronted a twin threat. First, the Islamist jihadis defiantly proclaimed to the world that they have the determination, organisation and technology to strike at the heart of India. The attacks on Parliament, Ayodhya and the RSS headquarters in Nagpur were foiled and the bombings in Delhi and Varanasi were dress rehearsals. Mumbai was the real thing and it left India distraught, disoriented and exposed.

The media invocation of the “Mumbai spirit” of gritty resilience was actually a grotesque celebration of national helplessness. People spontaneously rushed to help and comfort the victims of the tragedy, took the personal discomfiture caused by the disruption in their stride and then—and this is the harsh, unspoken reality—waited for the fire next time. They played Mumbai meri jaan on TV when they should have been whistling Que sera sera—“whatever will be, will be”—the signature tune of Hindu fatalism.

As if this good-humoured march to the gallows wasn’t bad enough, India is confronted by a leadership vacuum of monumental proportions. It was absolutely revolting to hear a shamefaced Prime Minister mouthing inane platitudes about keeping the peace and defeating the nefarious designs of the terrorists. It was remarkable that even in the face of such a disaster Manmohan Singh could not rise above the template mundane.

Was Sonia Gandhi any better? She certainly upstaged Manmohan Singh by rushing to Mumbai first and comforting the victims. But where India needed the steely determination of a Margaret Thatcher, or even Indira Gandhi, she chose to play Florence Nightingale for an evening.

When defeatism parades itself as enlightenment, you know that something has to give way. We need a leader who can call a spade a spade, brook no nonsense and do what is right. We need a man the jihadis dread and loath. We also know that such a leader exists. It is time we stopped being afraid of mentioning his name.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, July 16, 2006)

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